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I will begin with two anecdotes. First, when my bright and chatty 10-year-old was in pre-school, a well-meaning teacher pulled me aside and told me to have him tested for autism because he was engaging in repetitive behavior--writing the same story over and over again--and often seemed aloof. I was worried. I had seen similar behavior at home, but he was always responsive with his family. When he was tested, the diagnosis was a resounding negative. He has learned over time to be more socially aware. (Thank God.)
Two, I witnessed an awkward student earlier this year stand in front of his entire middle school class and read an award-winning letter to children's author Rick Riordan praising his Percy Jackson series about a child with dyslexia who learns his disability is actually a ticket into the world of the Greek gods. "As someone with Asperger's, I am afraid to go to school almost every day," the kid said in the letter. "I have read 'The Titan's Curse' over and over again, and it gives me courage to face my classmates."
These are the kids that could be affected by the new diagnostic guidebook for defining and documenting mental disorders, the DSM-V. The biggest changes for schools are a new, all-inclusive condition called "autism spectrum disorder" that lumps Asperger's and autism together with other disintegrative developmental problems. The other new category that could impact schools is a syndrome for excessive temper tantrums, "disruptive mood dysregulation disorder."
The point of putting labels onto mental conditions is to make sure that the affected children get extra help in navigating the already-difficult obstacle course of growing up and learning the scholastic essentials for taking care of themselves. As the American Psychiatric Association was debating the changes, several practitioners expressed fears that some autistic students would lose their diagnosis and accompanying social and educational services, which could worsen their conditions. The new autism definition could result in lowered diagnosis rates of a 10 percent to 50 percent, depending on who you read. On the other hand, the new disruptive mood dysregulation disorder could result in over-diagnosis of grumpy kids.
The fundamental difficulty here is that education and psychiatric treatment are not the same thing. Meshing the clinical needs of a child with a disorder and the responsibilities of the school in educating that child is a task fraught with peril. Dr. Allen J. Frances, an outspoken critic of the diagnostic changes, summarizes the tension this way: "School services should be tied more to educational need, less to a controversial psychiatric diagnosis created for clinical (not educational) purposes."
But I can't help coming back to the brave student with Asperger's and my non-autistic son who likes to recite baseball statistics at length. Both have had their share of social problems, but they may need different supports. However we can help them, I say let's do it.
How important are the changes in the DSM-V to schools? What would a reduction in autism diagnoses do for special education, if anything? How do teachers handle kids with these disorders in the classroom? Does a diagnosis make a difference in how teachers and classmates treat them? How can psychiatrists help educators teach kids with mental disabilities? How can educators help psychiatrists?
It's the time of year when senioritis sets in, reggae is blaring from dorm room windows, and college-bound students sharpen their pencils to figure out how to pay for the next year of school. This is also the time of year when student financing becomes a political gold mine, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney found out last year when he hastily backed an effort to keep interest rates from going up. Now the one-year fix that Romney backed is coming to an end. The 3.4 percent interest rate for need-based student loans is set to double July 1.
This week the House Education and the Workforce Committee will vote on a bill that would change the current fixed rate for new federal student loans to a floating rate, in effect treating the loans like an adjustable rate mortgage in which the rate would be reset each year. There is a cap at 8.5 percent. The bill also would accomplish a long-sought Republican goal, removing lawmakers from the tuition financing process and leaving the loan terms to the market.
The House measure marks a rare point of agreement between the Obama administration and House Republicans, in which both entities are suggesting that student loans should be pegged to Treasury yields, rather than an arbitrary fixed rate. The bill will be on the House floor before Memorial Day.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is also getting in on the action, proposing last week to put student loan interest rates at the current Federal Reserve rate of 0.75 percent. Her bill has almost no chance of passing, but it is creating considerable buzz among liberals and students. "Thank God, or whoever, for Elizabeth Warren," said Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive Magazine in a podcast. "Her proposal is the next best thing to free college education, but that next best thing needs to get here too."
Democrats in the House and the Senate have another student loan proposal that may have more of a chance than Warren's bill. It would also convert new student loans to adjustable rates, but the caps would be lower. Under all the proposals, students stuck with high rates would be allowed to refinance to lower rates after graduation.
Why are student loans such a big deal? What is the political attraction to the issue? Why is Warren's proposal so popular? How will students and parents react to variable-rate loans? How can policymakers justify variable interest rates to facilitate the higher education goals that everyone believes are worthwhile? What can students do to prepare for the change, should it happen?
"Kids don't learn from people they don't like," said Rita Pierson, a teacher and anti-poverty advocate in opening an hour-long television program devoted to major themes in teaching and learning. Her presentation is available on the Web to promote the full program on PBS Tuesday and Thursday.
Pierson's message is that kids need human relationships with teachers in order to learn. She also makes no bones about how difficult it is for an adult to offer that kind of interaction with every...single...child.
"Will you like all your students? Of course not! And you know your toughest kids are never absent. While you won't like them all, the key is they can never, never know it," she says. "Teachers become great actors. They come to school when they don't feel like it. ...We listen to policy that doesn't make sense, and we teach anyway."
Pierson's delivery is inspiring and funny and reminiscent of a motivational speaker. It speaks to the heart and not to the practicalities of the profession. It is a call to serve, not a linear prescription for reform. She offers passion but few concrete answers.
I suspect a little passion and some concrete answers are needed to make sure each kid we send to school can read, write, and interact appropriately. But I can't tell you how to get there. The PBS program, produced by the nonprofit ideas organization TED and New York City's public television station WNET, explores these questions with presentations from some of the country's biggest thinkers in education. They can't offer easy answers either.
A former high school English teacher I know describes teaching as a tribal activity. He says people who do it are dedicated, hardworking, smart, and sometimes smart-alecky. They like to bond with each other and grouse over the tribulations of their job--the low pay, the long hours, the horrible students and principals. They bond because they share a passion. Similar dynamics can be found in police precincts and firehouses, and to some extent, in the arts and the press. No one goes into those professions without something burning in their gut.
I love the passion. I wish I knew how to bottle it. That seems to be the biggest problem for all people involved in crafting education policy. You can't legislate a teacher-student relationship. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to craft rules that would foster those relationships, and it doesn't mean you can't have standards.
What are the best ways to foster honest student-teacher relationships? How do teachers mask dislike for students? How should they deal with their own problems while teaching? How important is the passion in teaching? Are there practices that can help compensate for a not-passionate teacher? How can schools encourage professional camaraderie among teachers? Do students really need to like their teachers in order to learn?
It's test-taking time in the Washington, D.C. public schools, an annual ritual that my fifth grader is learning to despise. The DC Comprehensive Assessment System, known as DC CAS, is taken in mid-April for all public school students, beginning in second grade. It is a series of tests that assesses reading, math, science, and writing. "This annual test keeps DC Public Schools accountable for meeting high standards for our students' success," the district says on its Web site.
Here's how my son experiences it. He says his math teacher is "freaking out." He complains that he can't read a book after he's completed his test and must wait silently for his classmates to finish. Two years ago, he brought home a packet of news articles for his reading assignment because his teacher said his class needed practice reading non-fiction. It did not take him long to figure out that his teachers' jobs were on the line and in part depended on his performance.
Educators in the Obama administration--and many outside it--say that standardized assessments are vital to the understanding of students' progress. Assessments can identify gaps among student populations and pockets within a public school system that need review. They are invaluable for identifying under-served and disadvantaged groups of students.
But assessments also have their problems. The Education Department earlier this year released a "best practices" paper on how to prevent, detect, and investigate fraud and cheating during the tests, illustrating the pressure that they might put on school administrators. The report includes a quote from 2011 from Education Secretary Arne Duncan defending the use of the test. "The existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing. Instead, cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children's expense to avoid accountability--an approach I reject entirely."
Lisa Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor, recently published a book advocating for more equity in education opportunities. She acknowledges that assessments are an important part of school accountability, but they aren't enough to bring the low performers up to speed. Her book, "The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future" delves into hard-to-measure stuff like school restructuring. As Washington Post education writer Valarie Strauss notes in reviewing the book, Darling-Hammond does not offer easy answers. Everything that actually makes a difference in closing the "opportunity gap" costs money, which we all know is in short supply.
What is the best way to fit assessments into the public school system? How much weight should they have in decisions about a school's direction? What benefits do students gain from assessments? What about teachers? Or parents? What are the drawbacks of standardized testing? What changes, unrelated to testing, would make assessments more useful to public schools? What other options are available for evaluating schools and teachers?
President Obama has declared April to be Financial Literacy Month. The goal is to "ensure all Americans have the skills to manage their fiscal resources effectively and avoid deceptive or predatory practices," he said in his proclamation.
This week, that National Assessment of Educational Progress will release new results on the economic literacy of 12th graders. The study was last conducted in 2006, before the financial collapse, and it showed while most students (79 percent) have a "basic" understanding of economics, less than half of them were "proficient" in the topic. For example, less than half of surveyed students could identify policy decisions that a government is likely to implement to stimulate economic activity during a recession.
It is to NAEP's credit that they consider this question worth asking, even though it may be more important for high school students to understand basic financial planning principles than the operations of the Federal Reserve. Either way, the results matter because the young people NAEP is evaluating are eventually going to be providing the answers to this country's complex and struggling economy.
Families also are trying to plan for college, and students are contemplating their options. Education researchers are pondering how to get them to assess the raw dollar values of various college choices, a difficult task in an often emotional conversation about a young person's future. The numbers sometimes can be surprising. College Measures issued a report last month on schools in Colorado, finding that students with two-year associates degrees in science are earning almost $7,000 more per year than students who earned bachelor's degrees in the same area.
It also doesn't help that federal financial aid systems are a bear to navigate, even though the benefits can be quite generous.
What exactly is financial literacy? Is it about personal interest rates or the gross domestic product? What should educators be focusing on when teaching about it? How can financial literacy be assessed? Is it important, or even appropriate, to look at the expected return-on-investment when examining college choices? What are some basic misunderstandings about finances and the economy? How much money is lost because of those misunderstandings?
California decided to tax each pack of cigarettes an extra 50 cents to try to get every child into preschool. That was 15 years ago. Last week, President Obama proposed taking a similar plan nationwide.
In his 2014 budget, Obama outlined a plan to pay for his universal preschool initiative by raising federal taxes on tobacco products, namely a 94-cent hike on each pack of cigarettes. According to the budget, the early education investments would cost $77 billion over the next 10 years, more than offset by the $78 billion raised through new tobacco taxes. (See page 22.)
My colleague, Cory Bennett wrote about this issue here.
The reaction to the unusual way to pay for expanded pre-K among Washington D.C. education gurus was interesting only in its blandness: There was no mention of the cigarette tax.
"While pressing for a balanced approach to deficit reduction, the President continues his funding commitment to early education and our K-12 schools. In particular, I am excited by his proposals to make early childhood education a national priority," said House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif.
"President Obama has issued a bold proposal to provide free, public preschool to every 4-year-old," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
It was only after asking that National Journal got reaction to the "sin tax" piece of the proposal from Altria Group, the tobacco industry's largest lobbying organization, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a strong Democrat who hails from the Tobacco State of North Carolina.
In my humble opinion, Obama found a truly ingenious way around the sequester problems he gave himself by signing the government funding bill into law. He gave up his right to ask for more money by inking across-the-board budget cuts into place, but he didn't give up his commitment to early childhood education. Let the smokers pay for it.
Is paying for pre-K with cigarette taxes a good idea? Is there a better way to pay for it? How does the president's unusual way of keeping his commitment to pre-K help the cause of early education? Is the proposed sin tax a distraction to a more serious policy conversation? How can education advocates help to advance the proposal now that it's out there? Is the cigarette tax itself too divisive politically to accomplish anything?
The Senate is working on national immigration legislation that includes easier ways for foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities to stay in the country. President Obama wants foreign students in math, science, technology, and engineering to be given green cards automatically.
The foreign student provisions are part of a much larger debate on immigration, but they touch on some quiet, but very real concerns among families. Will foreign students displace my own kid? What if the foreign students outperform the Americans?
Yet international students are important for the economy and for the nation's global workforce. There are more than 760,000 foreign college students in the United States, adding $21 billion to the economy, according to NAFSA, the association of international educators. That's not nearly enough, says NAFSA senior public policy advisor Victor Johnson. "That's only 3 to 4 percent of the student body," he said. "There are no particular policies to try to push that number up. It should be a million, maybe more."
Johnson says U.S. students aren't getting the international exposure they need to thrive in a global economic market after college. Study abroad programs are considered a luxury, not a necessity. They can be overpriced and discouraged in certain fields of study that have rigorous curriculum. Students on work study programs or who have families can't fathom the idea of spending a full semester abroad.
Lower income students, in particular, would benefit from more international exposure, but they are also the least likely to get it. "Students from more disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, no matter how many opportunities you have for them, they really need to be encouraged and pushed," said Mark Gordon, president of Defiance College, a small private liberal arts college in Ohio. Gordon prides himself on having students over to his home for dinner on a regular basis. He said he learned from his interactions with Defiance's poorer students that they face additional barriers going abroad. In response, Gordon created smaller trips of two to three weeks that are part of their tuition. "We guarantee that in their junior and senior year, they'll have at least one international opportunity that will essentially be free," he said.
Gordon and Johnson are facing uphill battles convincing educators to make international exposure for students a priority. Governments don't have the infrastructure in place to encourage it, and policymakers may unwittingly discourage foreign travel or study in trying to streamline curricula to get students into the workforce as quickly as possible.
What are the advantages of international study? What are the drawbacks? Should we encourage foreign students to come to the United States to study? Should we encourage them to stay? Should colleges and universities make international exposure an integral part of the campus culture? If so, why? How should they go about it? If not, why?
Update April 2 11:40 a.m.: The NRA's National School Shield task force, headed by former Rep. Asa Hutchison, R-Ark., unveiled a broad school safety report that recommended a wide variety of actions that schools and governments can take to ensure school safety, including mental health threat screenings, methods of student transportation, and school resource officers that could be trained to carry firearms if a school chooses.
Hutchison said his task force backed away from an earlier idea floated by NRA that schools could be protected by volunteer policemen, citing reluctance by school superintendents.
Look for details of the proposal here.
With the National Rifle Association offering its prescription for safer schools this week, a group of civil rights activists preemptively weighed in on the issue last week, arguing that adding armed police to schools will not do anything to increase our children's safety. The conversation takes place almost four months after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The Senate is poised to vote on a range of gun control measures in response to the Newtown shooting next week. One item on the agenda is a school safety bill that would add $40 million to a grant program that helps schools pay for capital safety improvements.
The civil rights report, The Gun-Free Way to School Safety, argues that armed police in schools will harm students rather than help them. Police are not trained in communicating with children and teens, they tend to over-discipline students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth, it says. The report was produced by the Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, Dignity in Schools Campaign, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
It is worth scrolling through the recommendations to see all the ways that schools should bolster their overall safety. School crisis plans need to be thoroughly mapped out and communicated to children and families. Schools need to offer sufficient resources to staff to train them on how to create trusting, workable relationships with families. Mental health professionals in schools should be able to conduct threat assessments, along the lines of tests and observations used in the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for students who appear to need early intervention. The report cautions against zero tolerance and harsh discipline practices, which do nothing but foster "breakdowns in communications between staff, students, and parents, which allows distrust to fester." If there are police in the school, they should never be part of the school's discipline process.
Schools need invest in therapy-like development for teachers and students--"social-emotional learning," "positive behavior interaction" and conflict resolution, the report says. If schools concentrate on the kinds of emotional problems that can cause violence, and they have created a thorough crisis plan, they can probably get through an emergency in much better shape.
Of course, that's the kind of well-rounded thinking that everyone should employ, not just schools. And at that point, armed police might not be needed at all. Or if they are, their role is only a small part of a much larger process.
What are the essential elements of a school's crisis plan? How hard is it to put such a plan together, and how proficient are schools at doing it? How much do disciplinary practices matter in the context of stopping violence? Are zero tolerance policies a bad idea? Or do they work well to set firm boundaries for students and their families? Is it feasible for cash-strapped schools to invest in the emotional-social-cognitive therapies that can be beneficial to troubled students? What is the role of the community in helping schools be safe? How much do armed police officers matter in the broader scheme of school safety?
The Common Core State Standards offer the perfect case study in misplaced expectations. The school standards that 46 states are implementing have been billed by advocates as the answer to the country's K-12 ills and by critics as the beginning of federalized schools. In truth, they are merely a set of benchmarks put together by well-meaning people who may or may not have accurately pinpointed the areas where students and teachers need the most help.
To actually offer that help, roll up your sleeves and start working. That's what the Carnegie Corporation of New York says in a new report arguing that the standards alone cannot drive real change in schools.
High school students will be the most vulnerable during the transition because the standards are higher but the students have not had the benefit of the reworked curriculum in the lower grades. "It's not just a few schools here and there that need to be really, really good at catching students up," said Leah Hamilton, one of the report's authors. "We need many, many schools that are good at catching people up. In order to do that, that requires pretty significant change in how schools are organized."
The answer, from Carnegie's perspective, is radical school redesign. The report recommends personalized learning and sophisticated use of student data and assessments--pretty far from the current, low-tech classroom approach in most high schools. Not coincidentally, the foundation is also looking for individual school districts where it will finance such restructuring in the next school year.
Carnegie sees Common Core as a catalyst for change in education and hopes, through its grant program, to open the door for a completely different way of thinking about schools. The foundation is also concerned that without bold action, the new standards will amount to nothing more than another check-the-box task.
They are not alone. Two education activists--EdLeader21 CEO Ken Kay and Envision Education CEO Bob Lenz--last week wrote about the diverging paths for the Common Core implementation in an op-ed. One path is a "compliance-driven exercise," the authors said. That would be nonproductive at best.
"The second path leverages the strengths of the common core to transform teaching and learning. It entails educators' taking the time to understand what is visionary about these new standards and how they can help drive college and career success for students," the op-ed authors said.
Understanding the vision.Transforming teaching. Radical redesign. These are not easy tasks. They require commitment, resources, and the willingness to experiment. They are the underpinnings of the Common Core. It's just not clear the effort will succeed.
Are the Common Core standards necessary to provoke radical change? Are they enough? Is radical change needed? If so, where is it needed? Is personalized curricula the way to go? What role does technology play in implementing the Common Core? Is Carnegie right to focus first on high schools? Is it possible for educators to take the time they need to understand the new standards without impeding implementation?
It may seem like sacrilege to subject the "good debt" of federal student loans to the ups and downs of market forces, but lawmakers eventually will have no choice. It's probably not a bad idea anyway.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee kicked off what is likely to be a long conversation about the costs of college last week at a hearing where Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., proposed moving to a market-based system for student loans. Interest rates for new student loans would fluctuate from year to year under that scenario. "Such a system was previously in place from 1992 through 2005. Had it remained, interest rates on student loans could be less than 3 percent today," he said.
The move would take off the table a politically volatile (and annually recurring) issue. In June, the fixed 3.4 percent interest rate for need-based student loans will double unless Congress acts. Nobody wants to see that happen, but keeping the low rate costs money, which is why lawmakers only maintained it for one year in 2012. They were prolonging a system that makes very little sense. More than half of all students who have need-based loans also have unsubsidized loans at 6.8 percent--essentially the same loan with two different interest rates. It's ridiculous.
Democrats are not necessarily opposed to tinkering with the student loan system, but they want to make sure the conversation doesn't happen in a vacuum. The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization next year, and they say lawmakers should be taking a broad view of access to college, completion rates, and the totality of the financing mechanism. There are lots of ideas. Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., wants to make sure lawmakers focus on college completion because borrowing money and not graduating is a waste for everyone. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., wants to tie all loan repayments to a borrower's income using IRS tax-withholding mechanisms.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Finance Deborah Lucas recommends a student loan scenario that works much like the mortgage market--individual loans would be locked in at a certain rate, but the interest rates for new loans would fluctuate year to year. They would actually reflect the nature of the economy.
Policymakers are dancing around a fundamental question: What student loans are supposed to be. Are they supposed to reflect the state of the economy or be insulated from it? How can the government ensure that low-income students have access to the loans? Is the government creating a false economy in fixing the interest rates for college borrowing while the cost of loans can be far cheaper elsewhere? What is special about student loans and how should they differ from regular borrowing? Should student loans cost more than regular loans?
Perhaps most importantly, how does the student loan conversation fit in with the broader question of college financing and tuition costs? Are we ignoring bigger issues?